In his excellent little book Radical Then, Radical Now, the late Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks addresses the question: Why be a Jew? He wrote the book originally as a wedding gift for his son and daughter-in-law, but then enlarged and published it for a wider audience, both Jews and non-Jews. In the post-Holocaust age, in spite of the greater freedom enjoyed by Jews in many (especially Western) countries, most Jewish communities report an alarming decline in numbers of adherents. Jews are abandoning traditional practice, ‘marrying out’ and not creating the ‘Jewish home’ that used to be a central feature of Jewish life. They are not so much unaware of their Jewish identity, as rejecting it or trying to shed it.
At the same time, Sacks quotes statements of non-Jews who admire Judaism.
The British historian and writer A. L. Rowse described in his memoir written near the end of his life one of his unfulfilled dreams: “If there is any honour in all the world that I should like, it would be to be an honorary Jewish citizen.” Winston Churchill said, “Some people like Jews, and some do not. But no thoughtful man can deny the fact that they are beyond question the most formidable and the most remarkable race that has ever appeared in the world.”
Jews make up only about half of 1% of the world’s population. Yet the contribution they have made to world civilization is out of all proportion to their numbers. Since the Nobel Prize was established in 1901, over one-fifth, 20%, of Nobel prize winners, have been Jews.
Yet in spite of all they have suffered through millennia of persecution, in spite of the horrors of the Holocaust, in spite of their achievements and contribution, they are perhaps the most hated people in the world. In every country there are reports of antisemitism growing more widespread, more violent, more extreme.
Why this extraordinary, irrational, peculiar hatred?
At some time during the second year of COVID lockdowns, in the spring of 2021, as I became increasingly aware of the news of growing antisemitism, I decided to read about it. After years of not wanting to believe there was antisemitism in the Labour Party, I eventually learned I was wrong. I began to read more widely about Judaism and the experience and beliefs of Jewish people. It turned out that it was fascinating and beautiful. In retirement I was allowing myself to re-examine the beliefs of Christianity, expecially the ones I had always found difficult or unattractive. Like Original Sin, ‘total depravity’, the excellence of the spiritual over the physical and material, so that virginity was often prized over marriage. Like the exclusiveness of ‘salvation’, only through Christ — which, if you push it to its logical conclusions, suggests that a loving God created the vast majority of human beings knowing that they would be condemned to eternal punishment. Like, all the theories of atonement which attempt to explain how ‘salvation’ works. Like, the relentless drive to convert anyone and everyone who isn’t a ‘born-again’ Christian, and make them just like us.
And I find that most of these are just not there in Judaism. Whatever its peculiarities — and of course it has many difficulties of its own, like every human religion — it is in so many ways more humane, more universalistic, more life-affirming. Its typical mode of prayer is largely blessing and thanking God, not begging to be ‘let off’ the punishment we justly deserve, and longing for God to bring the world, and with it the whole human Story, to a blessed End.
So what’s to hate, about it?
Perhaps one answer is, it’s easy for bullies and haters to hate the people they regard as weak and unable to fight back. No one makes a scapegoat of a lion, which might have its own ideas about what was happening. But I have come to wonder if the real, deeper reason for the irrational hatred that is antisemitism, is that bad people hate what is Good. In its very essence, Judaism is about Freedom. Moses brought the people of Israel out of their slavery in Egypt, and made of them a nation who would be God’s “treasured possession among all peoples… a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” The people of Israel are radically free. And that is what rulers and tyrants have hated more than anything through all the centuries. And it’s what the little people, who know that they themselves are not free but are slaves or victims, also hate passionately. They envy the Jews and so they hate them. They would admire them, but they cannot bear to admit that they are admirable, and so they hate them.
When God first called Abraham, God promised him,
“I will make of you a great nation,
And I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
And you shall be a blessing.
And I will bless those who bless you;
And curse him that curses you;
And all the families of the earth
Shall bless themselves by you. (Genesis 12.2-3)
Anyone who hates Jews, will be — already is — under God’s curse. No wonder they are such unhappy, unfulfilled, violent, hate-filled people.